AUTHOR'S NOTE: Rated 'R' for emotional, physical violence and strong language. *Testament* is written for the grown-up Transformers fan with the intent of a more realistic setting and therefore, a bit more violent. Parents are encouraged to read *Testament* for themselves before reading it to their children. All comments and confusion can be aimed at T.L. Arens:




Some parts of town stood as still as a mortuary. Deserted, wrecked by bombs and taped off by emergency crews, the buildings stood as testament to a group of cultists who had lost all sense of conscious. Strange ghosts inhabited the whole area; ghosts of both the living and the dead.

Rusti ran wild with and against the breeze that blew through and around the empty streets. It ran through her hair, it teased her, dancing around her body. She saw it all in flashes of blurred images. She felt and heard everything around her and everything that wasn't. Her consciousness would not be still! It ran mad, trying to walk calmly in the circumference of a twister.

Her mind would not be still. It jerked from one thought to another, fleeting and so terribly loud! Rusti's breath fluttered to the pace of her heart. Her eyes would catch everything that moved, from the wave of early spring leaves, to just the toss of a piece of paper, shoved and pushed by the afternoon breeze. The girl didn't know how long she had been running. She escaped the moment the second bomb hit the B-wing, leaving Brian in agony, though she couldn't remember exactly what she did to him. She couldn't exactly remember much of anything, really. Her own memories would not heed her bidding; they were as darting as the events and voices racing through her over-exerted mind.

She paused at an abandoned cookie shop and covered her ears. "SHUT UP!!!" She screamed. But her mind would not be silenced. Images flashed rampant, voices came and left in a frenzy of echoes, making no sense at all. She slammed her head against the window on her left.

No silence. No rest. She spun and slammed her hands against the window. "Shut up!" She raged. "Shut up!" She spun about again and slammed her back against the invulnerable glass pane and slid to the ground, frustrated. Her nerves stood right on their tippy-toes and she dug her nails into her scalp. It was like being on the worst of java rushes. She couldn't run far enough, hard enough, long enough. She jumped to her feet and ran away again, her back pack bouncing from side to side.

But all the running in the world would not quiet her heart, would not still her mind and she kept running, dashing from one block to the next, hiking under the huge buttressed overpasses in the city, daring any of the creepy locals to try attack her.

It might have been close to dinner time when she finally thought a little food might help ease the stress of the overdose. She stopped at a gas station, digging out change, which thank Primus she was smart enough to put in her pockets. Her whole body shook like the pine leaves in a windstorm.

What did she want? There were hotdogs, but she feared indigestion. Nachos? That had merit. Popcorn? Not enough. There were sandwiches she could warm up or eat cold. She had enough to buy a descent amount of food. But she wanted to keep it light, too. Just in case she might need the extra change later. The way her head was moving, it would be a wonder if she made it to Fort Max at all. Finally Rusti decided on a box of Nachos, two small bags of smoked almonds, two of cashews and a pint of orange juice.

She waited in line for the next bozo to finish and she laid her groceries over the counter. The man . . . the beast? It was a beast or some guy in a really bad costume, turned to her.

"That it for ya, kid?"

"Yeah." She answered quietly. She dug into her pocket.

"It'll be $14.50, kid."

"'kay." Rusti pulled out a twenty and handed it to him.

"Ya not sellin' yourself, are ya, kid?" The beast asked.

"I'm hallucinating this whole thing." She said to herself. "I gotta be."

"What'd you do t' your arm?"

"My brother spiked me hard. Can I get a bag?"

"Tell your folks?"

"What? They think I did it. They don't think I'm as good as Brian." She took the bag and stared at the beast, watching while he grew a second head on his shoulder right in front of her eyes. Rusti shook her head. "Hope I don't start to see double here soon. You don't know where there's a shelter, do you, Sir?"

"Sir?" Both heads arched back in surprise. "You no druggie, kid. And there's no shelters round here. Better find the hospital."

"No. I already destroyed one of their rooms last time I was there. Thanks, anyway." She dragged her purchase off the counter and left the mini mart. Sadness suddenly enfolded about her. Rusti realized she was completely on her own. There was no one to protect her, to make sure she was okay. The girl crossed the empty windows of a vacant store. How very sad to be so alone. Something could happen to her and no one would know.

Perhaps she should call her folks, tell them where she was. But then, she'd have to listen to their lecture about running away and then they would punish her and . . . and . . . Rusti didn't think all that agony was worth going home. On the other hand, she knew she needed a place to stay the night. It was May and in the mountains, it was still cold at night.

Distantly another thought occurred to her. Why hadn't she thought about just taking the bus to Fort Max? Where was her head? She had the money and the freedom. What an idiot! Here she had been running from the school down Primus knows how many streets, and not once did it occur to her that she should take the bus and go Home!

Now Rusti really glanced around the area. There were three overpasses to her right. To the left stood many a deserted house or business building. About a block away stood police barricades blocking the road from cars.

That drew Rusti's attention and she decided to go there, take a look at why the area was tapped off. The road sign read B Street. The other sign had been rubbed off on purpose. She slowly approached the wreckage, taking only a momentary glance at the No-trespassing signs and the prohibition signs. But there was no one around to keep her out. She crossed the line, feeling a little strange about disobeying a rule set in writing. Rusti picked her way carefully around the rubble, taking some note how huge slabs of concrete and metal were neatly staked. It had to be one of the gestalts that did that. She peered around, wondering what could have caused such a terrible mess.

And then a face popped right in front of her and Rusti screamed with a start. Then she realized it was just a painting-a really good painting. It looked like a madman, dancing with strings attached like a puppet. It had three bulging eyes and a freakish smile. There was writing under it, but Rusti could not read it. She hated the image. She felt naked in front of it and she turned away, still feeling the three eyes staring at her.

She glanced back over her shoulder, her sea-grey eyes scrutinizing the lousy piece of art.

The three eyes blinked. The smile broadened and the thing, the painting, stared right at her and tilted its head. Fear seized her and rather than run away, she attacked it, sweeping up whatever stones or clumps of cement she could find and smashed them ruthlessly at the three-eyed puppet. It still seemed to laugh at her and Rusti attacked it personally, scratching it with her nails.

"STOP LOOKING AT ME!" She screamed.


She turned and one of the giant slabs of cement grew a face and snarled at her. "You're not supposed to be here, Little Girl."

"That's right." Another slab of grey marble agreed. "You're supposed to be home, doing homework."

"Shut up." She spat. "You're not my boss."

"They'll kill you!" The marble warned. "Aunt Delphra will make you do all kinds of things you hate. Your dad-"

"Don't you dare mention him!" Rusti pointed at it. "Don't you dare mention him! I'll turn you into something you'll not like!"

"He's gonna eat you up, Little Girl." The Marble continued. "He's gonna tie you up and set you in a roasting pan and bake you nicely done and then he'll eat you up and you'll be all gone and dead."

"I SAID SHUT UP!" She screamed. "SHUT UP! HE DOESN'T KNOW WHERE I'M AT! NOBODY KNOWS WHERE I'M AT!" And her own words hit her hard. She was utterly alone, at the mercy of whatever predator might be lurking about in town. She fell to her knees, crying. "Nobody knows where I'm at!" She covered her face, frightened and frustrated.

"Oh, good gawd." The first cement slab rolled its eyes and looked elsewhere.

The marble slab moaned in disgust. "Nothing's worse than a cry-baby." Rusti stopped crying, sniffing now and she wiped her face.

The faces on the slabs had disappeared and the painting stood marred and scratched from her attacks. Rusti's pulse ran high. That was a really bad hallucination and she wondered how many more she would have, or was she walking in a perpetual virtual reality? She knew nothing about 'joys', it was so recent, that the school had no information, either.

Pain exploded in her head and Rusti crumpled, lying as still as possible. Her eyes closed by themselves and she plunged into an unholy darkness.

There were two Autobots. One Rusti instantly recognized as Optimus, the other, a femme, she did not. The femme was kinda pretty. She had peach-colored paint that shimmered blood red when the light hit it just right. She had a gentle manner about her, unassuming. But the smile, the smile was just like Rusti's own smile.

"One moment in time." The femme said softly. "One decision in a point of time affected the whole continuity and it affected not only the future, but the past."

"The past is proven a bitter thing." Optimus answered. It didn't sound like, him, really. It didn't sound like something he would say. "It doesn't matter how far I have tried to run from it, it keeps coming back."

"It keeps coming back."

And he looked right at the girl.

Here we go again, Rusti thought dismally.

One great war.

The destruction of a city made of crystal.

An abomination made by the hands of a traitor.

A Decepticon turncoat becomes an Autobot leader.

And an Autobot leader is assassinated by his own people.

And the time lines changed.

And the time lines changed.

Rusti found herself cussing. The confusion of events, the memories that were not hers came in fragments, just like the fragments of window glass floating down the hall of a school that now no longer stood.




She didn't need to breathe. Not this time. She opened her eyes and rolled over on her back. Cold had descended the world and she was out in it. The girl still lay where she had fallen and from the appearance of things, the darkness and the street lights casting shadows in every nook and corner, she had been out for quite some time. She moaned and slowly sat up, the terrible migraine now not more than a dull ache. But the buildings and the trees and the slabs of cement and the telephone poles and the road signs all stared at her with creepy eyes and ugly frowns.

"Alright!" She snapped at them. "I'm leaving! Now shut up!"

The sidewalks lay so eerily silent, deserted and forgotten in the dark of night. Cops and military officers patrolled the town on foot, by horse or by car. Dogs accompanied every other unit, trained to sniff out anything from drugs to weapons.

Rusti watched them go by from the second floor of a deserted and looted building. She held her breath, hoping the dogs would not alert them to her. They would take her home to her folks and she would be punished for sure.

She held her breath, waiting. She didn't want to spend the night here, on the cold floor of this . . . whatever it was. Most of the stuff had been cleared out of the building, but judging from the pictures on the walls, she assumed it had to be an insurance agency. There was one desk. A broken leg forced it to tilt to one side, standing like a wounded thing in the lonely silence. Rusti frowned. There was no light except what came in from the nearby street light. It was cold and she wished she could have brought a blanket. She tried to situate the desk so that it at least sheltered her a little better from the cold, but she was only nine years old and she didn't have her exosuit and that meant she was just a puny little thing, unable to lift a metal object that really was about the same size as she.

Rusti sighed resignedly and sat under it, peeling her back pack off. She unzipped it and broke open her precious rations. If nothing else, she was able to eat.




Overlapping time lines that ran rampant like a car speeding without brakes.



Reality #1: The Constructicons were built in caverns on

Earth by Megatron.

Reality #2: The Constructicons might have been Autobots at

one time, converted by an abomination known as the

Robo Smasher.

Reality #3: The Constructicons existed before the birth of


The voices, overlapping and repeating, rising and lowering like the ocean waves at high tide, kept whispering, sometimes louder, sometimes softly. But they kept at it and at it until Rusti's eyes shot right open and her pulse raced with the sound of the voices.

"Autobots! Transform-"

"The Autobots will never listen to you again."

"You have killed your own people."

"I negotiated for peace."

"You have betrayed life for peace. That's not freedom."

"It was the safe thing to do."


And that overlapped and overlapped, repeating and shifting, the insane whisperings came and rebounded from one end of the room to the other in a yo-yo effect. Rusti whimpered in frustration and crawled out from under the desk. She was on the verge of tears.

"Stop!" She whined. "Stop! Leave me alone!"

All around the walls pressed toward her, faces pushed out, their lips speaking with whisperings, some of them even shouting, their expressions angry, disgusted that she did not respond to them in kind.

The girl fell to her knees, her body shaking. She bowed over and covered her face. She tried to cover her ears but the voices kept whispering, one atop the other. Rusti finally took to her feet and ran out the room, finding faces and voices all around the hallway, now they came up through the carpet, too and their sounds followed her out the door.

Her feet pounded the sidewalk as she ran. The faces rose up from the pavement, all of them staring accusingly at her; Human and Transformer alike. Were they the Dead? Were they ghosts? Victims of long ago? Were they memories long since buried deep in the Matrix? She didn't know.

Rusti just ran, the cold night air froze her arms, leaving her hair cold, her legs weak with exhaustion and all around, everywhere she went, the buildings, the cars, the trees all stared at her with mean expressions. She tried to ignore them entirely.

Down one block. Left. Down two blocks. She found a small café but couldn't decide whether she should stop in and ask for help or not. She peeked in and found two praying mantis attending the counter, one served a half-dog/half lizard creature a bowl of soup.

Rusti backed from that and ran on. The voices were bound to catch up with her at any moment, anyway.

As if on cue, a hand protruded from the next building and tried to grab her. It missed when she screamed and ducked. And she ran on, trying to get away.

And she ran and ran, running from the city that would not be still, running from voices that would not be quiet. She ran from a possible future chained to the room in her parent's house.

She did not know how long she ran, or where she ran to. She didn't even know when fatigue finally forced her to just stop. But sometime with the rising sun, Rusti woke, finding herself curled on an old ratted couch under the staircase in an alleyway. She shivered and wished for the millionth time she had a blanket.

Footsteps entered her ears and the girl froze. If it was a bad guy, there would be no way she could defend herself in this state. She was exhausted beyond thought.

A K-9 patrol unit pattered down the sidewalk. The two officers and their dog crossed the alley. The dog paused a moment, staring down the ally's darkness. Back doors belonging to individual shops stood locked. The ground was littered from neglect, an ancient Christmas advertizing poster colored the back wall belonging to a Radio Shack at the end. The dog kept staring, damn certain something was there. But it couldn't be sure because whatever it sniffed, was not Human. The Shepard hesitated a moment longer, indecisive. Taking on alien life forms that smelt like this was not something for which the dog was trained. The animal whined, apologetic, shook his head and led his companion onward.

The whine reminded Rusti of something else, some event that took place a whole life ago. The screams of the two gang members tortured by the Matrix-they whined and begged so pitifully. She shuddered, recalling the sounds, as though they were pierced through their souls. Their punishment had to be something far greater, far worse than anything she could think of. She remembered the deafening explosions. And then, Brian.

Her body shook uncontrollably. Her skin had turned a nasty pasty color, drenched with perspiration. Whatever had happened, left her cold and completely isolated. No one would ever find her, that much was certain. And if her mother, father or Aunt Delphra came, she'd give them a taste of what she had just gotten. That's all it would take, just one sound of their voices.

As for Brian, he was a deadman. Short of watching him fly away from her, she had no idea what happened to him. Flashes of adult bodies encased in armor were thrown against the walls, their frail forms burnt to a crisp. Screams from the school victims kept circling through her mind like a bad song.

Guilt sickened her and she did not know how to deal with it. They were all going to severely punish her-even Op and Roddi would be terribly angry.

Look at what she had done.

She lay there on the filthy couch, completely miserable. After several hours, or what seemed to be, the sun tried to filter through oncoming clouds, finally losing to the inevitable storm heading in.

Rusti now remembered she had planned to take a bus to Fort Max. But for some reason, she just hadn't gotten that far yet.

Her head throbbed. She was just too sick to do anything right now. So she closed her eyes and tried to sleep it all off.

Hallucinatory . . . hallucin . . .atory . . .hallucinations . . . causes hallucinations.

I'm going to have hallucinations.

Rusti's optics . . . eyes opened. 'I'm going to have hallucinations.' she thought to herself. Whatever state her mind was in, however long she had just lain there, she knew not. It was cold, though and she was hungry. Rusti slowly pulled her back pack off and held it to open the top when a set of eyes opened up on the back pack and stared at her. She tried to ignore them and found her orange juice and nuts.

There was no telling how badly she'd hallucinate. Nor was there any telling how long it would last. If she could just stay right where she was, she could probably ride it out. But it was very hard to tell because she did not know how much of it Brian gave her.

She managed to eat the disgusting food and was amazed she could keep it down. It suddenly dawned on her why she had such a problem with food; everything tasted bad. Her mother's cooking didn't help. But everything just tasted bad.

[organic crap] something said in her.

"I know." She answered out loud.

[and what are you going to do now?]

"To find . . .rescue." She answered. She stood and stumbled, but caught herself against the stairs. So clumsy! What a naughty thing!

Naughty? She laughed inwardly. That was a silly word! Her eyes scanned the brick building to her right and a naked lady stood bound against it, her arms outstretched. Her hair was caked in blood and mud. Her eyes wide with shock and pain. Her dark skin was blemished with cuts and abrasions. "They're lookin' for you, luv." She warned.

A rape victim, Rusti thought to herself. The lady's psychic footprints are all over the alleyway. "What do I do?" She asked. "If the police find me, they'll take me back to Mom's and Dad's house and I want to go Home. I can't seem to get to the bus. I can't seem to find a bus stop. I don't know what to do!"

"There's a gang that carouses the area. Hackers, mostly. They're harmless. They might give you a ride."

Rusti nodded and gazed at the staircase which had turned into a huge white kitty. It stared dumbly at her then turned away, going back to sleep. The girl dared about three steps forward and found her balance was still not what it should be. She swayed one way then another, catching her weight on the brick wall of the building that sheltered her.

"Hey, no drunks here." The building complained.

"Sorry." She muttered clumsily.

Rusti made her way to the sidewalk as the distant rumble and screech of a car echoed. Rusti winced as a lion of a car roared up, zooming past her. A few demons and a pair of imps and a princess in tight jeans yahooed and caroused as though they owned the empty streets.

Rusti shook her head. It always amazed her how some people could have so much fun breaking rules and getting clean away with it. If she ever tried something like that, she knew she'd get caught instantly. She just couldn't get away with anything.

The car swung right back around and aimed toward her again. Rusti decided it best to move on and find a place to hide. Anyone who sees demons and imps in a car should not be out in public.

The princess stood up in the convertible and pointed at Rusti. Reluctantly, the driver pulled up to the sidewalk and revved the engine impatiently.

Rusti backed away. The demons all jeered and joked, some of the things they said were a bit obscene. She turned and walked away as fast as she could.

The princess leapt out the car and carefully approached Rusti.

"Hey, little pet." The princess called sweetly. "What are you doing out here all alone?"

Rusti gazed at the car as one demon, laughed, cracking really bad jokes. He (it) waved his tail at her. She looked back to the princess and realized she had lovely light blond hair. "I'm trying to get to Optimus." The girl replied simply. The lion of a car roared lazily in the late May afternoon. It made her nervous.

"Do you have a place to stay the night?"

Rusti glanced at the building but it frowned at her. "Well, the building won't let me stay. He says he doesn't like drunks. But I'm not drunk. I think he's just cranky."

The nineteen year-old squatted down before the child and brushed aside her blood-red hair. She was a sweet little girl, reminding the young woman of a family she once had. Her eyes fell onto the girl's left arm and traced the blood trickling there. The little girl's face was bright pale, her eyes fully dilated, her lips swollen. Sure symptoms of a 'joys' overdose. And the wound seemed to indicate someone else gave it to her.

Rusti stared at the mark on her arm and watched as millions of little people scampered out her body. She hadn't seen it there before. Why? And why did she keep forgetting to get on the bus and go to Fort Max? She was embarrassed by the sight of little people running out of her body and she tried to wipe them off.

"Are you hungry?" The princess asked.

"I had some orange juice and something . . . nuts."

"Well, I'll tell you what, you come with us and I'll make you some soup. Do you like cream of chicken?"

Rusti smiled, grateful for some real food. She nodded and she and the princess glanced around when one of the demons laughed its head off for no apparent reason. The princess sighed and shook her head. She swept Rusti off the ground and returned to the lion-car.

"Awe, man!" The driver-imp moaned. "You collectin' pets again, Rhi-Ariana?"

"It's my right." The princess answered smartly. Besides, nobody should be out here alone at night. Those things come out and the little one here can't defend herself."

"Boy, are you a sucker for hard cases!" Another demon sneered.

"I hang around you idiots, don't I?" She asked. She got in the car, holding Rusti close and closed the door.

The driver revved the engine high and cackled with laughter, as though suddenly possessed. And they shot down the street.

They drove into the seedy part of town where a mall stood dark and empty. There were many such buildings in this side of the city. This was Central City's memorial to the destruction of the Decepticons. This was where the great meteor 'Meetorini-Chiparooni' landed. Echoes of a terrible battle between Optimus Prime and the Dinobots vibrated against the walls. The Dinobot's murder-lust left psychic footprints here.

A dead factory stood here. Cold steadfast walls marked by laser burns and graffiti stood against the cold. This was where humans were enslaved by the Decepticons. Ninety-four people died during Megatron's reign of terror that year. Burger nearly lost his life. Many battles had taken place in this part of town; many.

The princess exited the car with her demon and imp friends who laughed and danced madly about the place. She lovingly gathered Rusti to her and followed them into the abandoned factory.

The building proved not so abandoned now. It was well-lit, but not blinding to Rusti's sensitive eyes. Many people lived here, tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the factory. Rusti's large eyes spotted computers, electronic equipment, automobiles and-geeze-energon cubes! There were other creatures besides imps and demons. She discovered a great ogre and three dwarves, one bearing a patch over his eye. There was a mean-looking pirate who bore tatoos on his arms. And a little further away stood several ancient mainframes. They remained unused except as walls to partition parts of the factory. Behind those were several mattresses and a couple of broken but still useable tables. Rhi-Ariana set her down in a large chair as a rotund Mexican woman approached, fists on her hips.

"Lord, Rhi. Seems you just gotta pick up another piece a' baggage ev'r time you guys go a'joy ridin'."

"Somebody's tried to kill her, Di." And she held Rusti's bleeding arm for the woman to examine.

Rusti felt ashamed and bowed her head.

"Oh gawd." And Di departed, returning the very next moment with a medic kit and a blanket. "You hungry, Sugar?" She asked as she set the articles on the table.

Rusti couldn't figure out why the woman looked like a lady bug. At least, she was sure it was a woman. "Yes." She whispered. "What do ladybugs eat?"

The two women stared at her, wondering why she asked.

"They don't eat little girls, that's for damn sure." Di muttered. She departed, leaving the two alone for the moment.

"Hon," Princess Rhi-Ariana called. She gracefully knelt beside Rusti. "I need to take your blouse off to clean this."

Rusti slipped off her back pack and just let it drop with a crunch. Then she simply stripped off her blouse and tossed it. The princess stared at her a moment before kindly smiling. Then her smile died and she guided Rusti to turn slightly and bend over. She gasped at the burn scars on the girl's backside. "Who did this to you?"

"My brother." She answered simply. "Do you think Brian's the devil?"

"He most certainly is!" Rhi-Ariana gasped. "When was the last time your dressing was changed?"

"I'm not wearing a dress." Rusti replied. Her answer didn't sound right in her ears. Rusti didn't feel she was mentally competent to answer to anything. She had broken out in a cold sweat and was so grateful when the ladybug came back with a bowl of soup. The meat and lumps jumped and laughed at her and stuck out their tongues. She picked up a spoon and shook her head. They were teasing her because she hadn't started eating yet. She scooped up a spoonful while Di and Rhi examined her back and discussed how to reapply a fresh dressing without hurting her too much. She really didn't pay any attention to them, however. She downed that first spoonful and felt the warmth trickled all the way down her chest. She sat up straight, enjoying that warmth to its fullest.

"I'm sorry, Hon." The princess apologized. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

Nothing hurt. Rusti was just tired and hungry. But she decided she didn't need to say anything. She kept listening to the soup as they snarled and jeered at her. Sounds all over the factory told an entire community lived here. Scavengers, perhaps, but maybe not likely. Who these people were, she had not idea. Some of them seemed to bear trauma like little creatures mounted on their heads and shoulders. The walls of the factory bore the scars of death and slavery, but they were slowly changing with the colors of compassion and hope.

A centaur rode up. Her long dark hair draped over her breasts, her tail gracefully swayed one side to the other. "What's this, Rhi-Ariana?"

"A new pet." The princess answered.

"Oh, gawd. A bird, Rhi?"

"A baby bird." Rusti cheerfully replied in the princess' stead. "That's what Optimus and Roddi call me."

All three women stared at her in unison. The centaur approached a little more closely. "Rodimus Prime?" She asked.

"Yeah. Mom wouldn't let me go Home to him and Optimus any more. Then Brian got mad because I saw the puppet on the bus and he burned my back and I got mad and decided to run away." She sighed heavily, suddenly not just tired, but depressed. "But the dummies attacked the school today."

The centaur came up to the table and peered at Rusti's dilated eyes and examined her skin. "You've got it bad, sweety."

"They must've drugged her with 'joys'." Rhi suggested.

"They sure did."

Rhi gazed Rusti in the eyes, searching for something. "Hon, you say dummies, you mean the Dopplegangers?"

"They have twins that aren't real." Rusti finished her soup, rather proud that it did not upset her stomach.

Rhi drew her attention again. "You can tell the difference between the gang members and their twins?"

Rusti nodded. "The bus driver was one. He looks like a puppet."

"Lord, that's freaky." Di whispered.

They carefully bathed Rusti, dressed her arm and found other clothes for her. Rusti finally felt warm and they gave her a cup of hot tea before putting her to bed. Finally, a real bed! Rusti was never so grateful to sleep in a bed!

Her heart raced in the deadness of the night. Rusti woke with a start and found her body trembling, drenched in a cold sweat. Her heart palpitated the likes of which she had never felt. Her eyes were wide, her ears ringing. She glanced everywhere, finding most people had long since retired to their perspective sleeping places. Fear shook her head to foot, and she could not figure out why. She lay back down on her side and rolled up, blanket and all, but could not talk her body into returning to sleep. She shivered as though someone plunged her into a pool of ice.

A footfall made her heart leap into her chest and she held her breath.


And so very loud! She tried not to breath, but her body demanded it. She strained to hear something, anything. But nothing came to her senses. Oh! She thought she would go mad with fear! Something was stalking her! She just knew it.

Oh, there, one step . . . two . . . Light, soft footfalls on the cement floor of the factory. Not human footfalls, not like those some of the demons made. But more horse-like clacks.

She heard somebody breathe. And they must have been horribly close because she even heard them move and oh, how still she told her body to lie! Stay silent! Don't breathe! Don't move!

And the moment dragged on and on and she thought for damn sure it would not pass! Maybe it was one of Brian's friends come to betray her. Maybe it was Brian himself, come to hunt her down! She wanted to hide her head between her hands, but just dared not move.

It moved. She was damn sure it moved. And her heart leapt into her mouth the moment something touched the blankets above her. She freaked and darted off the bed, falling on the floor and managed to tangle herself in the blanket. She untangled and leapt to her feet, grateful she had on her ususal clothes instead of a nightgown.

In the blackness, she saw a shape. Nonhuman. It was not much taller than she. Its shape, while having arms, legs and a head, was irregular and when It moved (?!) When It dared a step around the bed toward her, It swayed and tilted, as though burdened with an unholy weight and had to over-compensate.

And the way out factory was behind It. Rusti stepped back. The thought that it could be a really bad hallucination occurred to her. It might not be real at all. She dared another step back,

Gawd! It moved! It rounded the bed and swayed, right, left while it took its two large steps. And it made no noise.

"What are you?" She whispered. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"Yyyyooouuuuuuuuuuu." Its answer came in a soft haunting whisper and it dared another step.

"Stay away from me!" She whispered again. She took another step back, and thought about running, but feared It might outrun her. It dared another two steps and Rusti realized she had no choice. She walked away at first and when It started running, she squealed and ran, tripping once, but managed to maintain her balance. It chased her through the sleeping area into another work area where a light hung in the ceiling. Computers and cars stood everywhere in this section.

Light didn't matter to It. It kept coming right for her and she finally started looking for something to fight It, finding nothing.

Suddenly that part of the complex lit up like the day and four great archers, obviously Robin Hood's Merry men, stood around her, their bows and crossbows taut with readiness. Rusti spun around to face her attacker and found a dark shape, made entirely of robotic head fragments; mandibles and optic sensors and parts of the cranial chamber. Its own head was a mangled contortion of many faces fused into one. It reached for her with hooked hands and she screamed and one archer shot at It, the arrow piercing the air with the sound of a shot gun. The creature fell all to pieces, collapsing like so much glass.

Rusti shook so badly she fell herself, her eyes wide with fear and the worst of it came when the creature pulled itself back together, now reforming into a ghastly demonic form, its mouth filled with horrible sharp little teeth and it swept around, filling even the archers with terror. It shrieked and spat something in one language, then another, then something else in Autobot.

The archers fled, one actually dropping his weapon. Rusti swept up one of the archer's guns, not having the slightest idea what she was doing. It ambled for her and she screamed, for in Its mouth she saw the agony of souls, millions of them, longing for release from their pain and suffering. Over the meganiums, their souls were slowly digested by this creature.

She held the weapon tight, hoping she could shoot It. The dark shadow descended and lo, from her own body rose a shapeless ethereal form. It spread and shaped itself into a dragon's head and as the wraith came for her, the dragon opened its mouth and with a growl, devoured the wraith and it wailed in despair and the dragon snorted and disappeared.

Rusti collapsed, her breathing ragged, her heart racing so fast, she thought it would pound right out of her. Her skin grew cold and clammy and her eyes would not shrink back to their normal size.

Tiny bugs started to crawl over her skin and she tried to wipe them off. But more came and they covered her entirely and she tried to wipe them off her face. They got under her shirt. She moaned and whimpered unable to get them off and she scraped her face with her nails, but in so doing, her nails tore off, leaving her fingers bloody and the bugs crawled into her hair and she started to pull her hair out to get them off and the bugs shouted, mocking her efforts with little voices. An adult ran to her aid, but all he did was drench her with a bucket of blood and Rusti screamed.

And she screamed.


Rusti lay in an uncomfortable position. Her plugged nose forced her to breathe through her mouth and her body lay partly cold, partly warm. She tried to open her eyes, but something warm and wet blocked them. She lifted her hand . . . out of water. She moved to touch whatever was on her face and somebody's hand gently pushed her hand back underwater.

"Just relax, Sugar." Came a lady's voice.

A nasty salty taste filled her mouth. The water felt good and soft. Rusti really didn't remember the last time she just sat and soaked in a bathtub. Rusti smiled, but cuts and scratches on her face made it hurt to smile. "Optimus used to give me baths." Her voice came scratchy and whispery.

"Did he?" Came the rough feminine voice. "I can't picture an Autobot giving a girl a bath."

"Grandma Witwicky used to have a picture of me peeking in Optimus' office with no clothes on. She gave me a bath once and walked out and I went upstairs to see what Optimus was doing."

"It didn't bother you that you were naked?"

"I was four years old. Pretty stupid." She reached up to removed the cloth that covered her eyes, but the lady pushed her hand underwater again.

"Don't touch that, hon."

"What's wrong with me?"

"You had a . . . bad night. Just lie still."

It suddenly dawned on the girl that her fingers were all bandaged. "I had a horrible dream."

"You most certainly did."

"Was it because of the drug?"

"It must be. But I've never seen anybody suffer like that." She paused. "Well, almost. Now, you've been very quiet until now. What's your name?"


"Rusti. It's cute."

She smiled. "Optimus gave it to me. He said I was infactious."

"You mean infectious."

"Yeah." She paused again while the woman drained the water and replaced it with fresher, warmer water. "Are you going to take me to the hospital?"

"Not if we can help it."


"Let's say they ain't gonna be happy to see us. With or without you. 'Sides, if we take you to the hospital, they're gonna wanna know who your real folks are an' if they find out, they're gonna hafta call 'em. I'm sure you don't wanna go back to your brother, right?"

Rusti frowned. It was true. She was a fugitive, now. "Right." She moaned. "But, all I wanted to do was go to Fort Max."

"Won't them at Fort Max jus' turn ya over to your folks?"

"No. Not after I tell them what's going on."

"Oh. You think they're gonna save you."

Perhaps the woman was right, and perhaps she was not. But Rusti couldn't believe the two Autobot leaders would just turn her over to her folks without a fight. Not this time. And even if they absolutely had to, she'd just run away again. Somebody had to hear her out! "Brian doesn't like me. He knows I can see them."

"See who?"

"The puppets."

The lady fell silent and she lifted the cloth from Rusti's eyes. Rusti opened her eyes and found the bathroom just a big blur. She turned to see who was tending her but all she found was a giant ladybug at the bathroom sink, rinsing the washcloth in hot water. She lathered it in medicinal cream and turned back. Rusti dared a glance at her fingers and indeed found them all wrapped in gauze. She had scrapes and scratches all up and down her arms and legs and on her left arm lay a huge ugly bruise and a nice deep cut where Brian had punctured her with the needle. Her whole arm was swollen. Rusti bent over and covered her face. She was a terrible mess.

"Oh, hon, you shoulda jes kept your eyes closed." The ladybug admonished softly.

"What happened?" She asked, "Who did this to me?"

"Near as we c'n tell, you done it most yourself. We found ya' in the workshop, scraping your own skin off. Yanked out a good portion of your hair. Here now, lie back and lemme put this over your eyes. You're just a mess, girl!"

Rusti obeyed and gasped when the hot cloth kissed the wounds and aches around her eyes. "Can you take me to Fort Max? Can somebody here take me there?"

"Fort Max? No, I doan think so. We're not legit here, Hon."

"Whaddya mean?"

"What do you mean 'whaddya mean'?" The ladybug retorted. "Didn't you see what was out there, girl?"

"No. Yes. Computers and car parts. So?"

"So . . . they . . . repossess cars and correct people's monetary history. Keeps the shelter going."

"You mean you guys are pirates and use the money to run a homeless shelter?"

"You hush, now child. I said nothing of the sort!"

She was confusing the girl and Rusti sighed. But she thought she understood what was going on: They were running a shelter for the homeless and runaways, but doing so by illegal means. Rusti fell silent. She was homesick and hoped Optimus and Roddi were okay, because she hadn't been able to sense anything from them.

The Ladybug drew Rusti out of the bathtub, dressed her in a clean but well-worn nightgown and fed her a small bowl of Cream of Wheat. Thereafter, Di put her to bed.

Rusti lay quietly, listening to the bustle on the other end of the abandoned factory. Now she really wished she were in her own bed at Home. She waited impatiently for sleep to come and take her away for a little while. But the factory stood far too silent on one hand and too noisy on the other. No music, she thought grimly.

What really upset her was how warped her sense of reality had become. She felt like Alice taking a really bad trip through Wonderland. Rusti could no longer tell what was real and what wasn't. The creature the other night, for example; was that real? Was it? She didn't know. She had never seen anything like it before. What about the people around her? But, the girl digressed, that was easily explained. None of the people she saw were really aliens, they were creatures and characters out of various fairy tales she knew. So that problem was solved.

She sat up, now fully unable to sleep. Di might come storming to her and scold her for not sleeping, but it really couldn't be helped. Rusti's hands and left arm reminded her of battles she had already fought and lost.

Pretty sad. A warrior she was not.

Rusti began to rock back and forth. The shadows on the wall in front of her had been dancing for the last half hour. Her mind had gone completely numb.

People rushed back and forth somewhere on the other side of the building. But always there was she and the dancing shadows on the wall.

Something was wrong. Distantly, she could tell something was wrong. Her heart panicked but her body felt like lead. She didn't want to go anywhere or do anything but sit and rock and stare at the dancing, moving shadows. There was nothing anybody could do for her. She wanted to scream and could not. She wanted to cry, but no tears came to her eyes.

Home. She wanted to go home. Home was not the senseless dull life of the Human population. It all weighed on her like a curse. They had no sense. All so flighty like a finicky butterfly. The shadows knew it, too. Her home wasn't here. Her people weren't here in Central City.

And she knew she was running out of time. The time-release microbes in her bloodstream were about to burst again and she'd go into another fit soon. How bad this next one would be was uncertain. And considering the mood she was in, the oncoming rush could be very bad.

She hated Brian for this. He deliberately tried to kill her this time and the Autobots were the only people who would not deliver her back to her parents. Her skin felt hot. Her heart kept racing and her ears rang so that the loudest of noises came muffled.

She kept rocking as though autistic. The shadows kept dancing, kept leaping in and out of her sight. What was going to happen? How was she going to get out of this mess? <<Optimus.>> she begged. <<Oh, please, please answer me! Please be there! Please wait for me! Wait for me!>> tears stung her eyes and she batted once, feeling the warm tear turn cold on her cheek. Her heart raced and she willed it to slow down.

She watched as one of the shadows turned and faced her with glowing eyes.

It's started, she thought to herself. The third rush has started.

Something cast a darkness between she and the other side of the sleeping area. She slowly tore her eyes away from the hypnotic glowing eyes on the wall and faced a robot about her size.

The red-and-grey mech before her had the transform of a van. He had a pair of kind blue optics and a face structure that spoke of gruff kindness. Rusti tried to recall where she might have seen him before, but nothing came to her cloudy mind.

"Ya' can't stay here, li'l one."

"I know." She answered dreamily. "I just can't get myself to move."

"Yer in danger. These folks ain't able t' help ya."

Rusti sighed and wished the robot was real. A warrior's aura glowed about him and she believed he would risk his own life to protect her. But the vision passed and the robot changed into a broad powerful Autobot. She decided if he were a life-sized Transformer, he'd be taller than Optimus Prime. This one wielded a great battle axe and a crescent helm. A face plate graced his features and his large blue eyes told of a kind but fearless spark.

"Please." It begged. "You will die here."

She frowned. "I'm just Human. Optimus and Roddi can find somebody else to love."

He knelt beside her, his great axe now taller than his stature. "Please." He begged. "It's important."

She stared at it and quite suddenly realized the urgency wasn't coming from anybody in the factory, but the Matrix. Why would It be so concerned as to beg her to leave?

Rusti decided she didn't need to know. She slid off the bed, trying to ignore the bright eyes still watching her from the wall. She quietly dressed, found her back pack and soundlessly headed past the workshop toward the door and just distantly heard someone call her name.

But she ignored them. She wondered how far she'd get before the rush would really hit her. So far the rush was mild and it very well could stay this way for hours. But most likely not. The 'joys' rushes she had of late weren't very mild at all.

She aimed for the closest exit she could find. A banshee screeched behind her. And she hesitated.

"No!" The robot warrior shouted. "Don't look back! Just leave the building!"

Another banshee sounded, this time from a distance. The wind carried the sound, twisting it and pressing it forward like a paper boat caught in the current of a stream.

Rusti couldn't help but to hesitated again. What was the sound supposed to really be?

Di found Rusti and scolded her for leaving, but her words were drowned. The next banshee-screech turned into an explosion.

The walls shuddered and people shouted and dashed, pressed into action by the urgent sound of chaos, destruction and fear.

The Ladybug grabbed Rusti by the hand and dragged her toward the back end of the factory. A shrieking sliced through the air at such a high frequency that it forced the girl to hold her ears and bend over. Rusti staggered and fell against the wall, the sound ran through her body. She thought she could hear Di ask her what was wrong, but she could not answer. The girl managed to her feet, her eyes darting from floor to wall to wall, watching people grab whatever they could and make for the nearest exit.

A third screeching bomb detonated and ate the front end of the building. Some residents armed themselves and began to exchange fire with a giant army of ants as they tried to crash trough windows and doors.

Other women like Di and Rhi-Ariana struggled to evacuate their sick and helpless. Rusti was dragged to her feet and forced along. The sounds, thundered like many super creatures clapping their hands, gnashing their teeth, daring others to take their paths to power and death.

Fire erupted, licking its way into every corner and hide-out within the factory. And the fire's army, the men who walked with bodies of flame, pressed ever forward as the residents retreated to the back part of the building. Men in stolen EDC uniform armor lined against the walking fire demons and tried to hose them down with fire extinguishers or lasers that licked the fires at the source.

But Rusti knew their attempts were futile. They were trying to put out fires that were not of man, fires that walked with a purpose, and kept advancing, ignoring the line of defense and came for the citizens as the ladies, the homeless and the helpless made their trek to safety.

Rusti could not figure for the life of her why the men in EDC uniforms didn't try to stop the walking flames. What was the matter with them?

She never got her answer. Di dragged her between a pair of swinging doors. Two huge tigers, walking on two legs, bolted and welded the doors behind them.

"Keep moving everyone!" Someone shouted. "They're still coming!"

"Mike! Mike! The energon cubes-"

Rusti thought for sure she was going to go deaf before she turned fifteen. The sound was horrendous. The energy released from the energon cubes blew a good portion of the building away, stripping the factory naked of its defenses and its paint. The sound was so loud, there was no sound at all. Everyone screamed, but their voices were muted, their death cries failed in the echoes of oblivion. The resulting shockwave bent walls made of metal as though they were made of straw. The paint melted and had Rusti and six other people not been covered by the bending wall, they too would have felt the resulting heat, their bodies disintegrating straight into ash.

Rusti trembled like the ash around her, now flying in the winds of the heat wave and the cold Oregon temperatures. She couldn't move. It didn't matter how a voice inside her shouted at her to move, to get up and leave while she was still alive. She couldn't get up. The floor was hot, and it hurt to breathe. She closed her stinging eyes and remained very still. Perhaps someone might come along and carry her outside.

But nothing happened.

At least not until someone choked a cry and tried to scamper out from under the protective wall.

Rusti opened her eyes to see what he was upset about and watched in horror as the building, made of metal, started to fold in on itself. Worse still, it opened a gaping mouth, threatening to swallow her whole. Rusti scrambled to her feet, staggering now because she could neither see nor breathe. She ran then ran into something invisible.

She choked then coughed and forced her eyes open. They watered, making the image blurry. It was a fire demon that met her gaze. It stared down at her as one would a bothersome mosquito and she silently made her way around him, hoping he would not be too mad.

But the fire demon peered at her. ". . .see me?" He asked.

She blinked, trying to clear her vision and kept walking away, glancing over her shoulder.

" . . . see me?" The voice was distant, like someone talking over a bad phone line. And the cracking and melting of the fire kept her from hearing most of what he said.

" . . .me?"

She paused and realized she should never have stopped walking, she should never have paused. He drew a rifle from his back and charged for her.

Rusti would have screamed if her dry and burning throat would have allowed her. But all she could do was weakly run the rest of the way down the hall, out the broken doors.

The demon followed her, weapon charged. His body, lighted and pale with the fire from the building, cursed at her. He pointed a flaming finger her way and she wondered why he hadn't shot her yet.

"Whoa! Whoa! Where do you think you're going there, Little Girl?" A Dopp had caught Rusti in her arms.

Her wooden arms.

Rusti wanted to scream, wanted to do something more than just stare at the puppet that held her prisoner.

Rusti weakly tried to wrest out of her hands but the woman gripped her tightly and hauled her up under the crook of her arm. Rusti fought and kicked and tried to use her weight to break free of the puppet's hold. The puppet-lady slammed her hard on the back of a Harley Davidson.

Rusti tried to slide off the other side, still unable to utter a cry. The puppet slapped her upside the back of her head to get her to behave. The force of the blow shoved Rusti against the bike's controls and sliced her along the forehead. But the impact gave her the opportunity to spot a small electric gun sitting on the dashboard. The dummy mounted the bike behind Rusti and gave it a good hard start. She was leaving and taking Rusti with her.

Rusti reached for the weapon and jammed it on the dummy's wooden leg. It/she squealed like a little pig and jolted with electrical vibrations. Rusti smelled burning flesh and something else not at all Human. The puppet fell off the bike and its frame flamed bright red and a nasty white ooze surfaced through the skin.

"HEY!" Someone shouted from the door and two huge rock monsters emerged from the burning factory. One stomped toward her, pointing a claw for a finger. "You get off that bike right now, Little Girl! I'll kill you!" His face shaded bright red and he dripped with poisoned sweat. The fire demon aimed its weapon at her

Rusti swallowed hard and laid her hands on the bike's controls. It was a very large bike; meant for huge men with a broader shoulder span than hers. Her toes slowly rested on the floor ramps. She touched metal and power. Steel and electrical impulses. An alien non-life form. But it was familiar enough for her to touch it and to Touch it. She had never driven anything more than a bumper car in her life. She didn't even have a bicycle. But upon a few seconds' worth of a glance, she knew the controls, the brakes, the speedometer, the gas gauge. She knew how to balance it and work within the frame work of its awesome power. Teletronics.

Just as Big, Tall and Ugly came within precious inches of her, the bike came to life and nearly ran him over. Rusti's heart pounded and she sped away. In the rear-view mirror she spotted the rock creatures mounting bikes themselves and easing on after her.

She sped over the bridge linking the dead area to the rest of Central City. In the horizon she could see the red glow of smoke seep into the air. Part of the city was on fire. Behind her the two cyclists roared. She increased speed, feeling nothing. Not fear, not sorrow or excitement. Her entire frame of mind remained set on one objective. She heard nothing. It was as though part of her consciousness were asleep or dead. She spotted herself in the mirror and saw how her eyes were bright white, no trace of color in them at all. Her face was pale so that the blood that poured from her wounded forehead stood out as bright as her red hair.

Her heart pounded, her breath gasped and the cycle under her turned into an alien insect, complete with antennae and huge bulging eyes. Buildings that crowded around her turned into crouching creatures or the heads of gods. She passed under one expressway whose side had a face with five eyes. Each eye stared off into a separate direction until she approached and then it watched her intently, inwardly laughing at a little nine year-old who could not comprehend the gift she was using.

Rusti stole an exit toward the great park in Central City and tried to loose her chasers around that area. But they were experts on the bike and nearly outfoxed her twice. She veered a hard right and found a nearby ally. There, she forced the bike through a chain link fence into another ally which led her right back to a main road and to an on-ramp heading toward the main highway.

The two men tabbed her like magnets. She raced over the highway, zooming in and around people trying to get home before curfew was engaged. What should have been automobiles were also black insects of many alien variations. They raced right along with her until she came across a pair of semis. There she veered around them and took another exit off the highway over the bridge toward the university. She stopped along that empty road long enough to spot her pursuers. They slowed enough so that they could reach the on-ramp. Rusti laid a hand on the bike under her and kept an emotionless eye on them and the instant they drove up the ramp, both their bikes exploded right under them.

That explosion caused a chain reaction along the highway and one car caused another to crash into it, a third could not stop on time and a fourth piled on top with a fifth smashed into it and spun once, slamming into another car which slammed into another car which couldn't slow down on time and it too rammed into another car and so on and so on.

Rusti watched, her eyes burning something awful, her skin dry and aching. She was dying for something to drink.

The chain link fence standing between she and the highway below laughed at her and jeered. What she did was evil. She turned the bike around and headed down the street, leaving the highway in a terrible mess.

She rode to the edge of town where a long line of cars waited to seek refuge at Fort Max. At least, that's what was actually taking place. Rusti merely assumed they were all leaving period, not aware that Fort Max and Central City were besieged by alien-assisted cultists. The traffic jam was a delay Rusti could not afford. She parked in line behind a family car and turned the bike's engine off.

And she thought.

Perhaps she should just get off the road. Would the bike make it through the forest range mountains?

Doubtful. Rusti slipped off the bike and rummaged through what compartments weren't locked. She found half a bag of Doritos chips and a warm rain jacket. She searched around the seat and found a small bottle of water. She looked around a little more but found nothing else. She figured it's better than nothing and walked away, fully aware of so many eyes staring at her in shock.

"Hey!" Someone shouted from their car. "Wanna lift?"

She spun around, her eyes brightly lit. "I'm going to Fort Max!" She declared.

"Hey, Little Girl, you shouldn't just go into the forest. You'll get lost! Hey!"

He was an idiot. If he really wanted to take her there, he should get out of the damned car and get her, right? Did he do it? No. He cussed and sat back into his comfortable seat, concerned more with the traffic than the possibility that a little nine year-old girl could loose her life in the woods.

That did not matter to Rusti. She knew where she was going; he didn't need to fuss. She'd been down this way hundreds of times since she was a baby and she knew this way by heart. The trouble was all the hills. The ups and downs and curves and steep cliffs. The Cascade Mountain range wasn't so-named because the hillsides were sweet little slopes!

It was easy-going at first. The road out of Central city was pretty smooth, mostly twists and turns but then it turned damned ugly. Rusti had to decide whether to follow the road or go down into the gorge. She debated. If she traveled the highway, chances were someone, a police officer or someone else might try to pick her up. And chances were, they'd try to contact her parents. And that was the last thing she wanted. On the other hand, the gorge promised her a loss of direction, it being so far down and so thick with trees and brush. And there was another mountain coming up and if she followed the gorge, she'd have to go around that entire mountain, taking hours, perhaps days before reaching her destination.

She decided to stick to the highway. After all, it would still take her three days to reach Fort Max and maybe, just maybe she'd get lucky enough to run into one of the Autobots zooming up or back to the city.

That plan actually worked for the first three hours' walk. But Rusti's body wouldn't allow her to travel any further. She had to look for a place to sleep. Here on this part of the road, however, it was either cliff side or ravine.

Some choice!

Then a red VW slowed along the road and a high school student peered across the passenger seat. "Hey," he called. "Need a lift? I'm heading toward a cabin."

Rusti peeked in. "I just need to be dropped off where I can walk a little more easily. Can you do that for me?"

"Are you sure? Where're your folks?"

"Uhm. We're camping and I just got off the trail a little."

He bought it. "Wow, some camping trip. Didn't you guys know Antelope Elementary's been attacked? It's all over the news."

"We . . . ah, we're out here because of it."

"Oh. Well, hop in and tell me where you wanna go."

Gratefully, she slid in and they drove off and was Rusti ever glad she took him up on his offer! The next six miles were nothing but up hill climbing! Then the little bug started to descend into a low between mountain ranges and Rusti started to feel anxious and her body broke out in a sweat and that was when she noticed the borders around her fingernails started bleeding. She bit her lip. The rush hadn't hit at all yet. It was a false rush, all this time; a precursor! She gazed at the high school student who suddenly had become Jimmy Cricket.

"This will be fine." She suddenly piped.

"Are you sure?" He asked. "I could take you further, if you want."

"No." She objected. "I-I have to walk here. They're out there past those trees."

"Well, your folks are certainly safe!" He parked the VW off the road and she got out and closed the door after. "Good luck.' He said cheerfully and pulled away before she could thank him.

Rusti stepped into the forest, walking only a little distance from the road so that she could keep track of where she was. She searched for some place to settle and try to sleep off the oncoming rush.

She found a small nest comprised of fallen trees, rotting wood and ferns several yards away from the highway. She laid the coat over the nest and settled in. Her hands started to shake terribly and figured she needed food. She ate the Doritos and drank the water, but tried to do so sparingly, knowing that was all she would get for the next day or more.

She curled up then, pulling as much of the coat around her as she could spare from the ground.


Rusti had no idea how much time had passed. She woke to half a moon, bright enough to see shapes, but not bright enough by which to walk. She was half tempted to just curl back up and return to sleep. And she almost did except that she wished she had never awakened.

Sleep abandoned her entirely and she lay there, listening to the nearby wildlife and the cars that passed by on a continuous basis. She turned over on her back and wished for the millionth time she were Home in her room at Fort Max. She also had to admit she wished were home with her folks. Out here there was no telling what could happen. But somehow, she was certain she'd make it.

Mostly sure.

Almost sure.

Her head started to throb and pain spiked up into her brain so that she whined and held her head and sat up and bent over. Her face felt wet and it was then she realized her nose was bleeding.


The voice was terribly faint.

" . . . sssstiiii . . ." She didn't dare look around, fearful Brian had found her and was going to kill her for . . . killing those two men. She did that too, didn't she? She killed somebody! And that caused a seven-car pile-up! What a horrible person she was now! Optimus would never look at her the same way! What if . . . what if he decided he didn't want to have anything more to do with her? What if he was so disappointed in her that he'd just make her stay with her folks?

". . . sssstiiiii . . . "

"No!" She begged. "Go away!"

Something wooden tapped her wrist and she looked up, expecting a puppet. But it was a dead and blackened tree stump with glowing eyes and a mouth back lit with the fires of hell. It bent over her and was reaching for her with scrawny scratchy limbs.

She freaked and fell out of the nest and slid down, down, down the hillside. Her right arm was caught on a tree branch and when she tried to free herself, it turned into a solid steel blade and sunk into her flesh. She screamed and struggled to free herself. She had to actually stop and calm down enough to lift her whole body up the slope and pull her arm off the branch.

" . . . ssssstiiii . . ." The tree stump peered over the edge of the slope and laughed and jumped down, sliding after her. Again, the girl swallowed air and slid down, almost out of control through underbrush and unkind trees jutting up from the hillside. Then the inevitable occurred. She flipped head over heels and tried to protect her head, but it was useless. The world tumbled, tossing her in agony and instability. Her mind caught up in chaos while her body was ripped and torn.

She finally landed face down in water, the bottom of the creek impacting her nose and she breathed in water. Reflexively she searched for the topside and broke through, finding the creek was by no means shallow. She coughed and sneezed and struggled for the bankside in the darkness of night. The creek was freezing cold and kept her muscles from working properly. She did find the bank, however. But it was the damned cliffside, not level land. She groped, her teeth chattering and she bit her lip hard. She cursed finally and kept forcing herself to move on, to keep looking for a stretch of land to get out of the biting-cold water. Her head throbbed, causing her eyes to ache, forcing her movements to go slower than what she would have liked.

Ah! The creek turned shallow under her feet and she crawled until she touched dried ground and blades of grasses and weeds. She coughed and sputtered and sneezed, her wet hair limp and cold against her neck. She fell over on her side and pulled her freezing wet body into a fetal position.

This was her punishment for killing those two men. What in the name of Primus was she thinking? Stupid little girl! What was wrong with you! She was going to loose Optimus and Roddi now and they would take her away and put her in jail and she'd never ever have friends . . . she started to cry. She deserved this. She deserved to die out here because she just wasn't good enough anymore.

Stupid, stupid little girl.

She tried to go to sleep. Perhaps she would die mercifully in her sleep. They might find her weeks later, just a stiff carcass in the middle of nowhere and Optimus and Roddi could move on in their lives and not worry about her anymore. They could give her room to somebody more important . . . and that thought caused her to cry too. She wanted them to love her! She wanted to be good enough.

And she was sorry. So very, very sorry! Her tears seemed to lift some throbbing in her head, but they hurt her cut and scratched face.

It was decided, then. She would lie here and die tonight and . . . she was so very sorry! She loved Optimus and Roddi. They took care of her and understood what she was feeling and now, what a horrible person she had become!


She shivered uncontrollably, now. Her breath came ragged and she opened her pained and swollen eyes. The mountain stared at her, but not really interested enough to ask any questions.

The tree stump, however, the stupid tree stump was still there, staring at her. Morning sun fell on him and he stared at her like the Devil, ready to accuse her of every crime she ever committed.

"Look at you!" It snarled with Delphra's and Daniel's voices. "What a horrible ugly child! What's the matter with you, Resonna? Hu? Are you really that stupid?"

Rusti was disappointed she was still alive. Or was she? She glanced around, expecting to be floating above her body. But no such luck. She stood, her clothes clung to her and her breath smoked in the early morning air. She hurt head to foot, her face tight with partially-dried blood. She gazed right up the slope she tumbled off last night and wondered how she managed to live through what she fell over.

"That's right." The stump waddled across the creek and stood next to her. "You're dead. And you're going to wander aimlessly across the Earth for all eternity. Now, the first thing to do is apologize."

She stared at it, its ugly black short body. Her teeth chattered and she kept shuddering with the cold. She thought about taking off her shoes, but she'd need those to climb over rocks and branches. "Don't call me 'Resonna." She finally answered.

"What?" It snapped. "You think you deserve to be called 'Rusti' after all you've done? Hu? What's the matter with you?"

"Go . . .away." She ordered. "Leave . . . me alone."

"Yeah, right."

She turned from it and stumbled over roots and fallen tree branches, heading in the general southern direction toward Autobot City.

"You're not going to arrive there in one piece, you know." The stump warned. It followed her and Rusti finally turned back. "You are nothing more than (shudder) a figment of my . . . imagination. Go away."

The stump's eyes narrowed dangerously and it swung an arm back. Rusti stared defiantly at it. It was all in her head; a drug-induced hallucination.

And it slapped her so hard she fell and hit a tree. Everything went blank for a moment then she came too and saw the stump hovering over her, still holding the same ugly face as before but with one very horrible exception: it was real.

Rusti screamed and pushed her way past it, trying to run with a weak and cold body.

"Oh, dammit." The stump snarled, waddling on after her. "You can't run away, stupid little girl. I'm the same thing that went after you a few days ago and you tried to run away then. But not this time! I have your sequence! I know what you are!"

And while she kept trying to run, she glanced back and watched in sheer horror as the stump's face stretched away from its body and opened a gaping black mouth dripping with poison. It bit her arm and actually tore off a piece of her flesh. She shrieked and threw a rock at it with her left hand.

"LEAVE ME ALONE!" She screamed at the top of her weak little voice.

Her scream was little more than a pitiful whisper.

She ran as best she could, crying all the way.

It just waddled on after, muttering and mumbling.

Then it raised its voice. "Sooner or later I'm going to get hungry and you'll get too tired to run and you'll have to lie down and sleep, little girl! Just lie down right now in your misery and give up!"

Rusti wept so now that she could hardly see where she was going. She tripped over a branch and down she went. She scampered, hearing that horrible scratching sound the stump made as it followed her. She glanced at the cold hard tree branch and found a piece had broken off in her fall. It might make a good weapon. She grasped it with her good hand and scampered to her feet. Optimus and Roddi might not love her anymore, but they might still be willing to help her survive. They wouldn't let this thing eat her, surely!

She kept moving, albeit slowly, and the horrible thing snapped at her constantly, maybe driving her purposefully. It bit her leg and ripped her pants and that made it more painful to walk. She could hardly do that as it was, now.

Then, blissfulness and grace be from the Matrix, a clearing came into view and Rusti used the last of her strength to approach a sheer golden wall.

"Noooo!" The stump screamed. "I won't let this go on! Noo!"

"Max!" She could hardly talk at all. "Max, please hear me! Help! There's something chasing me!" She stepped out onto the soft green grass bordering the fortress-city when the stump grasped her round about the legs and tripped her up, dragging her back.

She screamed, but she had no voice left and fought with waning strength. "Max!" Her voice came pitifully soft. She had screamed and cried her voice to nothing. "Max!"

The stump wrapped itself snugly about her body and opened its nasty black mouth and she felt its breath on her neck. Her own breath came short, her heart no longer pumping; her head split open and she wished she would die before he bit into her. And Rusti's strength left her altogether.

A thump sounded in her ears and Rusti thought her heart had given out and she wanted to cover her face but the stump would not let her do so.

Then he let her go. Just like that. She plunged helplessly forward, frozen by shock. She couldn't breathe. Her eyes wouldn't blink.

She was going to die, right there on the grassy lawn outside Fort Max. Perhaps they would consider forgiving her of her sins. She had cried herself still.

Optimus would never forgive her.

. . .

. . .

"Rus-s-stiii." The voice must have been the voice of a god. Soft, a whisper in the wind. "Sweet . . . heart?" There was fear in that voice. "Rus-s-stiii?" He whispered it. He sang it.

A pair of divine hands surrounded her frozen and soaked body. She couldn't respond. She couldn't move anything. She couldn't say anything. Rusti did not have the strength of body or emotion to tell Optimus that his baby bird had already died.

"Rus-s-s-tii? Come on, Sweetheart, stay with me."

Was she alive after all? He called her something she never heard him call her-or anyone else ever before. He called her something . . . that meant something. What did that mean?

Another soft thump hit the ground. And a long silent pause. Rusti could not guess what it was.

"They're coming." Roddi was there! Roddi was there, too!

"I'm . . . not registering anything, Roddi." Optimus mourned. "I-If I pick her up, I might injure her further." His voice sounded so sad. So soft and distant. She wanted to tell him she was alive, but not one part of her body would obey any of her commands. Exhaustion had total control.

"Prime, Blaster says her family just arrived."

"No!" Optimus mourned. "We just found her!"

A silent moment passed between them before Roddi spoke again. "I'll go and entertain them. You take her in."

Half her body was carefully rolled over and she was lifted off the cold wet ground. Now her frozen body was cuddled on a warm smooth surface. And she remembered this position. She remembered Optimus or Roddi would hold her just like this when she couldn't sleep. The position didn't do anything to ease the pain and stresses she suffered, but she was loved and that was enough. That's all she wanted.


Rusti opened her eyes and found herself laying in a fluffy white bed. Her eyes batted open and closed as she fought the desire to go back to sleep. Dr. Hanson ran a light blue laser over the worst cut on her forehead and greeted the girl with a worn smile.

"Well, you certainly are of all things, a survivor, Miss Witwicky!" She greeted.

Rusti tried to smile, but found her lips split. Then her heart suddenly raced and she moved. "Optimus!" Her voice was still worn out and what should have been an exclamation was little more than a squeak.

"Sssshhhhhh . . ." It came from above her and it distracted her enough for Dr. Hanson to force her back down. Optimus was sitting right behind her, his optics narrowed and flared at the same time. Something warmed her inside, wrapping about her weary soul and her eyes blinked slowly with sleep. She had been perfectly horrible and he still loved her. Rusti started to lift her right arm, now bandaged about the wrist and the forearm where she had been bitten. She covered her face with her left hand instead and tried to turn away in shame.

Dr. Hanson was trying to heal that nasty cut. "Hon, you'll have to lie still for this to work."

"But I killed somebody!" She found it hard to talk. "It was so awful!"

Optimus leaned over and slipped his finger very carefully under her injured right hand, trying not to lift it too much. "Rusti," he said gently. "Don't worry about it now. All that matters is that you're home with us."

She started to sob again.

"Ssssshhhhh . . ." He hushed and she felt the warmth encircling about her again. He repeated the soft gentle sound until she stopped crying and dropped the hand from her face.

Hanson gave that 'I'm-going-to-kill-somebody' look and she went back to work. "She's not going to recover in a day." She warned ahead of time.

"Rodimus has already informed Tolomsky. Optimus' soft voice rang through the room and Rusti thought an angel was talking.

"What about her family?"

"No. I have temporary custody right now."